There's a popular debate among PGA Tour fans that stems from a hypothetical question: If everyone played their “A-game” at a tournament, who would win? It’s a fun conversation that elicits various responses, but, of course, it’s impossible to know the answer. These days on the World Long Drive Association, however, there’s no wondering about the same scenario. If Kyle Berkshire brings his A-game to an event, he’s going to win. And it probably won’t be that close.
In two-plus years, the strapping 6-foot-3, 215-pound, 22-year-old Berkshire has moved to No. 1 on the Long Drive circuit with power produced by staggering speed. Berkshire's golf balls routinely fly off his clubface at more than 220 miles per hour, peaking at a record 228 mph ball speed during his win at the Tennessee Big Shots in August.
“I like to let my performance do the talking,” said Berkshire, who estimates one third of his televised drives have had swing speeds faster than the next-fastest recorded swing on tour. “But if I’m three, four miles per hour faster, if I’m hitting the ball on the center of the face, if I’m optimizing my speed, if I’m moving the ball faster, I’m going to win. That’s just the way it is. … Physics is physics.”
Berkshire’s booming drives have led to wins in his past two official events, and he is the heavy favorite heading into this week’s World Long Drive Championship—the World Long Drive Association’s Masters and Super Bowl rolled into one—which begins Friday and will be televised live on Golf Channel, Sept. 3-4 at 8:30 p.m. EDT. Berkshire opened as nearly an even-money bet against the 96-man field (there are also Women and Masters divisions) at WinStar World Casino & Resort.
“They’ve done their homework,” Berkshire said of the oddsmakers. “It’s definitely justified based on my performance. At the same time, I know everyone is going to be taking their best crack at me. All I can worry about is performing the best I can. And when I do perform the best I can, it’s usually good enough to win.”
As Berkshire notes, though, there will be plenty of stiff competition swinging extra-stiff-shafted drivers. Defending champ Maurice Allen recently was said to have hit a golf ball across Niagara Falls. And there’s Justin James, who Berkshire beat on his eighth and final attempt in the semifinal last month.
Unfortunately for his opponents, Berkshire, who sports his signature long hair and a rocking motion before pulling his Krank 4-degree driver back, has a knack for bringing his A-game. He’s made the TV portion of 11 consecutive events, an incredible feat in a competition that consists of three-minute rounds of eight shots at a grid that varies from 45 to 60 yards wide. Although, the landing space seems generous, at those swing speeds, even being a degree off at impact produces huge misses. But just as remarkable is Berkshire’s quick rise through the long-hitting ranks.
Recruited to North Texas from Crofton, Md., Berkshire could have been finishing up his college career with the Mean Green this year. Instead, a freakish gain in distance between his freshman and sophomore year wound up leading him down a different career path.
“It still boggles my mind because I don’t know what happened. I didn’t change my swing,” said Berkshire, whose career-long drive in competition is a ridiculous 492 yards.
“My coach and teammates saw something that I didn’t because I think they had the perspective of seeing where their speed was versus mine,” Berkshire added. “I think I kind of took my speed for granted.”
They certainly saw something special one day during practice of his sophomore season. Berkshire tells the story of three North Texas threesomes playing as a ninesome the final two holes at Lantana Golf Club to finish quicker. With the wind at his back on the par-5 17th, Berkshire swung as hard as he could and hit “the most pure drive of my life,” his ball traveling an estimated 425 yards, some 90 yards past anyone else. And North Texas head coach Brad Stracke recalled his own practice-round moment of first being flabbergasted by Berkshire—a 275-yard 3-iron on the 13th hole at Gleneagles Country Club.
"I'm like, 'Oh my gosh,'" Stracke, who coached future PGA Tour pros Carlos Ortiz and Sebastian Munoz at North Texas, told ESPN last year. "I knew this kid was long, but I just had no idea he could hit it that far with the 3-iron, let alone the driver. And the rest was history."
It was Stracke who convinced Berkshire, who hadn’t cracked the team’s lineup after redshirting as a freshman, to give up his scholarship and give long driving a try instead.
“We watched the 2016 World Long Drive and coach called me up and said, ‘Kyle, a 210 ball speed just won. You’re 208 with a 45-inch driver. You have to do this,’” Berkshire said. “I was hesitant, but was eventually convinced to try it.”
After training for a couple months, Berkshire won his first long drive qualifier. He then decided to play a year on the circuit thinking it would build his confidence and help him when he returned to competitive golf. But the money—and Berkshire—simply became too good to walk away. Now, Berkshire, a former junior golf All-American, never even plays golf. Instead, he trains and works with swing coaches Bernie Najar and Bobby Peterson (yes, long drivers have swing coaches, too) year-round on his newfound profession.
“This is a sport. It’s not segment of golf, and people need to stop associating the two,” says Berkshire, who believes the lack of impact with the ground makes long driving better for the body compared to what the guys on the PGA Tour do. “The object of the sport is to hit the ball as far as possible. We’re not NASCAR. We’re drag racing.”
And it’s a blossoming sport at that. Golf Channel began televising long drive events in 2013 before buying the Long Drivers of America, the sport's governing body, and rebranding it as the World Long Drive Association in 2015. The World Long Drive Championship remains the circuit’s crown jewel, but there is now a growing schedule of events throughout the year.
“World Long Drive has evolved into an adrenaline-infused franchise that our viewers have gravitated to in record fashion,” Golf Channel senior vice president of programming Phil Piazza told Golf Digest last year. “This growth is a testament to the men and women making an impact on their sport, bringing a fun and exciting attitude to hitting it extremely long.”
As adamant as Berkshire is that long driving is its own sport and not some carnival side show, he’s just as clear that the world’s longest hitters of the golf ball don’t play inside the ropes. When asked about PGA Tour stars with long drive potential, he brings up Dustin Johnson and Cameron Champ. Instructor Sean Foley has compared Champ to Usain Bolt because of his ball speeds that top out in the mid-190s. But if Champ is Bolt, then Berkshire, who produces ball speeds 30 mph faster, is Bolt wearing a jetpack.
“If anyone wants to say they hit it past me, I’ll fly wherever and hit side by side with them and people can look at the TrackMan numbers,” Berkshire says. “I’ll use their club if they want me to. I’m not saying this to slight them in the least, because they are phenomenal at what they do, but they can’t hit it as far, and that’s a fact.”
But first things first. Berkshire will be gripping and ripping this week for his sport’s top title and top prize—a $125,000 winner’s check—at the 44th World Long Drive Championship. Life is good when you have a head of long hair and are capable of hitting longer tee shots than anyone on the planet. And yet Berkshire remains optimistic that things are only going to get better for himself and his fellow hitters.
“It’s definitely turned into something way more than I thought it would, but I think it could turn into something even bigger,” Berkshire says. “And that’s what I’m so excited about.”